BY GRAHAM MOOMAW
(VM) – The big change to Virginia’s voting laws in the last two years made casting a ballot easier for people who like to get things done early. A new law taking effect this fall will do the same for procrastinators.
Same-day voter registration is taking effect in the state in time for the congressional midterms in November, a significant shift from the way Virginia elections have worked in the past. Instead of the voter registration window closing about three weeks out from an election, the new law will allow voters to fill out a registration form and cast a ballot after that deadline, up to and including Election Day. Registration after the deadline will only be allowed in person, either at the local registrar’s office or at a polling place.
Ballots cast by late-registered voters won’t go directly into the scanners like a regular ballot would. Those voters will be allowed to cast provisional ballots, giving election officials time to verify paperwork and ensure the vote is valid before it is counted.
Though slightly more complicated for voters, setting the ballots aside for additional review lightens the burden on local election offices and could help alleviate concerns a bad actor could register and cast ballots in multiple cities or counties on Election Day by giving different addresses at each stop. Virginia polling places have limited Internet connectivity by design, which makes it difficult for poll workers to conduct real-time checks to see if a would-be voter is already registered somewhere else.
Treating the ballots as provisional, said Elections Commissioner Susan Beals, will give local registrars time to use the statewide voter system to perform those checks.
“They can run it against that and see has this person already tried to register someplace else,” Beals, an appointee of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, said in an interview.
As long as the information checks out, late-registering voters will not have to return to an election office later to provide additional documentation.
Democrats passed same-day voter registration law in 2020 as part of a package of voting reforms designed to increase ballot access, measures Republicans argued would chip away at election security.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who co-sponsored the legislation in 2020, said Democrats set a later effective date for same-day registration to avoid overburdening the system with too much change all at once. Simon said the bill will help Virginians who tune into elections late and voters who may have forgotten to update their registration after a move.
“This bill is meant to expand voting and make it easier,” Simon said. “And to not penalize people who aren’t paying attention to an election three or four weeks out and may not realize that their registration may need to be updated.”
The delayed timing means a Republican administration is now implementing a Democratic voting policy, but there’s no indication politics have influenced how the change will be rolled out in October.
Simon said Democrats always expected late registrants to be casting provisional ballots, and Beals said decisions about how the Department of Elections would implement the change were made before Youngkin appointed her to be the state’s top election official in March.
Republican legislators tried to repeal the same-day registration earlier this year. The repeal bill passed the GOP-led House of Delegates, but failed in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Speaking before a House subcommittee, Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, who chairs the House Privileges and Elections Committee, said the repeal bill she was sponsoring would restore a previous system that she said made it easier for election officials to verify where people live.
“They have not received clear guidance or a program implemented about how this is going to play out,” Ransone said in January.
At the time, Deb Wake, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, spoke against the repeal bill, saying same-day registration will help at least some politically engaged Virginians avoid being turned away at the polls.
“In every election, at least one voter and often several arrive at our polling places ready, eager and proud to vote,” Wake said. “Only to be turned away because the voter had moved, even if just a few miles.”
Under the previous system, Virginia’s voter rolls would have locked up on Oct. 17 in the runup to the congressional midterms on Nov. 8. That deadline is still mentioned on state and local election websites, and Beals suggested voters who act early still have the best chance to avoid any issues with casting a ballot.
“The nice thing about early voting is that if you have an issue, you have time to fix it,” Beals said.
Early voting for the Virginia midterms begins Sept. 23.
Beals said her department will be issuing updated guidance on voter registration in the coming months through its regular updates to the handbook used by election workers throughout the state.
In addition to creating new options for voters, Simon said, the change could also create new ways for candidates and their allies to campaign, opening up new ways to engage people who may not be regular voters.
“You could continue to do registration efforts or find unregistered but eligible voters,” Simon said. “And still bring them to the polls later in the process.”